Through five weeks, especially in this bizarre pandemic-shortened college football season, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s fake.
Southeastern Conference teams have played just two games, and the Big Ten hasn’t even kicked off yet. Still, a few teams have emerged as surprise contenders, while some of the preseason favorites have already disappointed.
Here are the biggest storylines to watch entering Week 6, beginning with a huge top-10 matchup in the Atlantic Coast Conference:
Miami’s big chance: Since joining the ACC in 2004, the Hurricanes haven’t finished higher than 11th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. There have been moments when many thought “The U” was back, including a No. 2 ranking in 2017, but the moments were usually followed by a disappointing loss. Through three games, it looks like this could be the most talented Miami squad in years. Will it finally break through? Saturday’s matchup against No. 1 Clemson is perhaps the program’s biggest regular-season game since No. 5 Miami beat No. 3 Virginia Tech, 27-7, in 2005. Led by Houston transfer quarterback D’Eriq King, the Canes are averaging 43.3 points per game, seventh most in the country. The defense and special teams have been even better, ranking sixth and first, respectively, in efficiency, according to ESPN’s SP+. Clemson has been nearly unbeatable with Trevor Lawrence, who is 22-1 as a starting quarterback. If Miami wins, or even keep its close for four quarters, it’s time to seriously consider the Hurricanes as national title contenders.
Tennessee’s time? The Volunteers haven’t been nationally relevant for more than a decade, with their last 10-win season coming in 2007 under Phillip Fulmer. This season could be their big break. Ranked No. 14 heading into a big matchup with No. 3 Georgia, the Vols have a real shot at reaching the SEC title game for the first time since that 2007 campaign. The Bulldogs looked great in a beatdown of Auburn last weekend, but the offense is still a work in progress under quarterback Stetson Bennett IV. Tennessee has questions of its own on offense with up-and-down quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, but the defense has been stellar through two weeks and can carry the team to a huge upset win if it can pressure Bennett into making mistakes.
Red River letdown: This game is circled on the calendar regardless of how Texas and Oklahoma are playing, but it comes at a disappointing time after the Longhorns and Sooners struggled to start the season. Oklahoma is out of the AP poll for the first time since 2016 after back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Iowa State, while Texas fell to TCU last week and tumbled from No. 9 to No. 22. It’s still a star-studded affair, with Sam Ehlinger facing off against Spencer Rattler in a battle of two of the nation’s five most efficient offenses. Unfortunately, it’s not the high-stakes matchup we’ve come to expect, with both teams needing outside help to have any chance of sneaking into the playoff this season.
First test for Florida: The Gators have vaulted to No. 4 in the AP poll, powered by the steady play of quarterback Kyle Trask. The defense is cause for concern after giving up 59 points in its first two games, but it’s bound to improve as the season goes along and still ranks 20th in efficiency. Up next for Florida is a road matchup with No. 21 Texas A&M, which hung around with Alabama for a little while before getting blown out last week. If Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond can play up to his potential, this is a scary game for the Gators. But if Trask and tight end Kyle Pitts keep playing like Heisman Trophy candidates, Florida should handle its business.
Time for Tar Heels to turn it on: No. 8 North Carolina has been steady in opening wins over Syracuse and Boston College, but it hasn’t exactly looked like the potential national contender it was predicted to be before the season. The good news is the schedule is set up perfectly. UNC doesn’t play Notre Dame and Miami until back-to-back weeks near the end of the season (and avoids Clemson altogether), and its matchup this weekend against No. 19 Virginia Tech is its only game against a ranked opponent until that two-week stretch. The Hokies have been solid in victories over N.C. State and Duke, but questions remain at quarterback with Hendon Hooker held out last week as the team dealt with COVID-19 concerns. For the Heels to jump into the playoff picture, they need to show what they’re capable of this week.
Gut-check for Gus and Auburn: The Tigers looked lost in a 27-6 loss to Georgia last week, with sophomore quarterback Bo Nix averaging just 4.4 yards per attempt and the defense getting picked apart through the air and on the ground, allowing 442 total yards. To make matters worse, what looked like an easy win before the season against Arkansas is now a tricky matchup after the Razorbacks stunned Mississippi State on Saturday. If No. 13 Auburn loses a second straight game, coach Gus Malzahn’s seemingly annual hot seat will get warmer earlier than it ever has.
Lane Train full steam ahead: Ole Miss' chances of knocking off No. 2 Alabama this weekend in Oxford are slim, but whatever happens, it won’t be boring. This rivalry has lost some its luster since the Rebels knocked off the Tide in back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015 (and nearly pulled off another upset in 2016), with Bama winning the past three matchups by a combined score of 187-41, but the hire of Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss adds a new wrinkle. Kiffin served as offensive coordinator under Nick Saban from 2014 to 2016 and departed unceremoniously after taking the Florida Atlantic job in 2017, being relieved of his duties before Alabama’s playoff loss to Clemson. If there’s any bad blood remaining between Kiffin and Saban, it will be on display Saturday night.
Florida State shakeup: Not much was expected from the Seminoles this season after hiring coach Mike Norvell to reinvigorate the program, but even he would have to admit that his team has been disappointing thus far. After losing to Georgia Tech and getting blown out by Miami, the Noles found themselves trailing Jacksonville State in the first half of a 41-24 win on Saturday. Dual-threat quarterback Jordan Travis will take over against No. 5 Notre Dame looking to spark an offense that has averaged just 4.9 yards per play, but it will be tough sledding against a talented Irish defense.